Thoughts for Trying Times: on Immigrants and the Economy

Signature gatherers are hitting the streets in Marion and Polk Counties, working to get identical pairs of anti-immigrant and anti-tax measures on the November ballot.  The right-wing outrage and scapegoating of the last year that was directed against Obama, and against health care reform is now shifting to fall squarely on the shoulders of immigrants and people of color.

It is a rocky era for immigrants living in the US.  Every wave of immigration has brought similar rocky times, some worse than others, from discrimination against the Italians and Irish to the mass internment of Japanese Americans just a generation ago.

There are some constants in the story.  Historically, during times of economic and social uncertainty, there always needs to be a scapegoat.  And there is a familiar pattern to blaming the newest immigrant group for taking jobs, as opposed to looking at corrupt finance and business interests who were really to blame in creating the economic insecurity more broadly.

This time around is the same, even though it is even harder to dispute that the kings of finance and industry caused our current economic problems.  Mexican immigrants did not cause the subprime problems, and they have very little to do with the drain of wars in the Middle East on our national budget, or our imploding economy based on debt and over-consumption.

But still, anger about our collapsing economy continues to be directed towards the most vulnerable, and those with the fewest rights: undocumented immigrants.

Proposals for Immigration Reform: Is this what we want?

Immigration Reform is a hot topic these days.  In late April, the Democrats submitted a conceptual proposal outlining 6 main areas that an immigration reform should address.  As well as a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants, the proposal contains provisions to ramp up border security, increase centralized tracking of workers and immigrants through contracts with private companies, and increase resources for deportation of undocumented people.  Is this the bill we want?

On the other side of the aisle, John McCain and fellow Arizona Senator Jon Kyl have submitted their own “borders-only” bill that would deploy 3,000 National Guard troops along the Arizona border, finish the border wall that divides the US from Mexico, and require more federal funding for new and improved enforcement tactics.

Does anybody else feel like this discussion is getting narrower and narrower, strapping and tightening the political blinders on us all?  As just one example of this narrowing and shifting, McCain had actually proposed an immigration bill similar to what the Democrats are now proposing – two years ago when he was running for President.  And we wonder now that if the proposal is submitted by the Democrats, are we supposed to think it’s a good solution?

Let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture here: The causes of immigration are rooted in our global economy, with our systems of free trade as a main player.  Structural adjustment mandated by the World Bank and IFN throughout the 1980s and 90s, agricultural dumping of subsidized US products on Mexico, and giving transnational corporations free rein to bust unions, commit human rights abuses, and degrade the environment – these factors have all led to a race to the bottom that creates enormous poverty and insecurity for our southern neighbors.  Solutions that try to address immigration by focusing on what happens inside the borders of the US – tracking workers, enforcing border security, strengthening local police collaboration with federal immigration – are band-aids at best.  At worst they are full of negative consequences for our liberty and safety – yet they have somehow become the front and center issues on the table.

Our Economy, and the “Undocumented Worker”

As human dignity advocates however, we have the ability to see beyond black and white talking point politics.  We can look at the whole experience of immigration – from the poverty or insecurity that cause people to leave their homes, to the push and pull relationship of our own country to immigrants.  It is complicated.  Our economy now depends upon a constant availability of undocumented workers – but what does it mean that we’ve institutionalized such an economy?  Isn’t this just saying that we allow some people to work under oppressive conditions to benefit the US economy, but withhold from them participation in our society?

Let’s also remember that if the right excels at one thing, it is the ability to use social issues, our identities, culture politics, as a tool to divide and conquer, and that the primary goals of the right have been economic.  One familiar example is the scapegoating of the African-American community during the 1980s, the manufactured image of the “welfare queen” – which contributed towards a massive carving-away of our social safety net, and the further erosion of our tax structure.

In the here and now, the radical right is fomenting hate towards immigrants as a tool to divide and confuse communities.  The wedge issue of race and identity is used to block health care reform, to push for regressive tax structures, to defund public services and concentrate wealth & power.

A further example of this is a pair of ballot measures that will likely be on the ballot this fall in Marion and Polk Counties.  One measure is a Taxpayer Bill of Rights that would restrict local government spending, and the other is an anti-immigrant measure that would require all employers to use the flawed E-Verify system to check employees’ documentation status.  Who is behind these measures?  Oregonians for Immigration Reform (a small but high-profile anti-immigrant organization based in McMinnville) and the Oregon chapter of a national anti-tax group, Americans for Prosperity.

The pairing of divisive culture politics with economic goals is crystal clear here, and if we let these measures pass now, the right will have a new strategy up their sleeve to divide communities and push forward regressive economic policies in the void.  We won’t let this happen.

We already know that these kinds of anti-immigrant measures punish communities for issues that have national and international causes.  They damage local economies.  They cause enormous uncertainty and fear in the Latino and small business communities.  They divide working people and distract us from addressing the real roots of economic inequality in our communities.  (See here for a quick summary of the contributions of immigrants to the Oregon economy.)

That’s why it’s so important, and such a pleasure to work with you all, and to know that we’re on the front end of building our communities up with solidarity across all races and levels of privilege.  It’s not only immigrants’ rights at stake, it’s all of us that want to live in a just country & world, where we can count on our government to meet basic needs of our community, and where we can live our lives in peace and security.

In solidarity,

P.S. Another opportunity to show your solidarity is coming up next week!  On Saturday, May 29th, our sister organization CAUSA is holding a rally to protest Arizona SB 1070, with a strong message that we will never let this kind of blatant racial profiling become law in Oregon.

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